Dry Fasting 101: Everything You Need To Know
I remember my first experience with fasting. I was young, maybe 10 years old, and I wanted to commit to water fasting for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. A day where abstaining from sustenance inspires discipline and self-inquiry while also bringing us closer to the suffering of the Jewish people. Light stuff for a 10-year-old, right?
Young me had an incredibly difficult time. I over-ate the night before to make sure I was sufficiently stuffed. When I woke up, all I could think about was food. How could I possibly survive another 10 hours until sundown? I walked into the kitchen dozens of times, tempting, torturing myself each visit. If I didn’t eat surely I would perish. It was awful. Why would anybody choose to do this?
I only committed to fasting for Yom Kippur a handful of times over the years. Each time I did a proper fast I felt a deeper connection to the holiness of the day, I felt respected by my family and community, and I felt a real sense of internal pride and accomplishment.
Fast forward over 20 years to my first intentional, non-religious fast and my mentality was the same. If I was going to survive this radical endeavor I would have to stuff myself the night before, do my best to avoid all interactions or thoughts of eating, and maybe I’d make it to the end before I withered away entirely.
Today, I’ve experienced a vastly different approach and stand firmly when saying that dry fasting is a game-changer. It has shifted my relationship with food, it has helped heal and restore my body, it has given me the gift of clarity, and the discipline has extended to other areas of my life. It’s my intention to share a bit more about the practice so that you too can feel confident about giving it a try and potentially making it a part of your ongoing wellness routine.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, dietician, nor fasting coach. I share my experiences with different fasting protocols so that you are aware of what’s possible. If you have serious health conditions or questions please consult a doctor or professional.
Your Fasting Journey
If you’re reading this with genuine curiosity then you’ve likely tried some form of fasting or you’re considering giving it a go for the first time. Maybe you’ve tried intermittent fasting, water fasting, juice fasting, or you too have a memory of enduring through a religious fast in your youth. Dry fasting is said to be 2-3 times more efficient than water fasting; one day of dry fasting is equivalent to 2-3 days of water fasting. While there are certainly benefits to each, my commitment is to keep this discussion limited to dry fasting.
Plain and simple: when dry fasting, you do not eat nor drink anything. No water, no bulletproof coffee, no lemon juice with cayenne pepper, nothing. Totally dry. During a “hard” dry fast you’ll also not shower, brush your teeth, or touch any water molecule to your skin, our largest organ that absorbs water. On a less extreme, “soft” dry fast, a bath or shower could be quite soothing and support you in your process.
There are many benefits of dry fasting. Like other seemingly radical practices, we often first seek them to address a physical need. To lose weight, to heal an ailment in the physical body, to lower inflammation. In my experience, the practice also opens us up to unexpected benefits in the emotional and spiritual realms. Fasted states can give us access to our subtle, energetic bodies, and to higher levels of consciousness. I heard an Osho talk recently where he discussed fasting,
“But the second body is only possible to encounter when this body has become pure. Yoga does not believe in torturing the body. It is not a masochist affair. But it believes in purifying it. And, sometimes, purifying it and torturing it may look alike. A distinction has to be made. A man can fast and he may be torturing only. He may be just against his own body, suicidal, masochistic. But then another man can fast and he may not be a torturer, and he may not be masochist, and he may not be trying to destroy the body in any way. Rather, he may be trying to purify it. Because, in deep fasting, the body attains to certain purities…”
Why You’d Want To Dry Fast
I mentioned a few above, but dry fasting comes with a whole host of benefits. My personal favorite is the anti-inflammatory response that I can feel my body undergoing. It usually happens around 12-16 hours in and continues to last until the end of the fast. My joints feel loose and open and I feel a lot lighter (not on the scale necessarily, but in my energy). My goal for fasting is not weight loss, though shedding a couple of pounds of water weight is a natural bi-product.
Other benefits that I’ve borrowed from Dr. Mindy Pelz comprehensive article on dry fasting include:
Dry fasting lowers inflammation in your body
Dry fasting helps you grow new brain cells
Dry fasting helps improve memory and capacity for learning
Dry fasting prevents against degeneration of brain cells
Dry fasting balances cholesterol levels
Dry fasting lowers blood sugar levels
Dry fasting prevents osteoporosis
Dry fasting increases calcium levels in your blood
How To Dry Fast
What I love about dry fasting is that it is so simple. Can I drink water? No. What about coconut water? No. How about a banana to keep my sugar levels up? No. Nuh-thing.
In preparation for a dry fast, I like to focus on two key areas: pre-fast hydration and managing my schedule during the fast. In the couple of days or day leading up to the fast, I stay properly hydrated and eat a bit cleaner. Less salt, oils, and fats. More fruits and veggies. Again, keep it simple. Clearing your schedule is also super important, especially if you’re doing a dry fast beyond 24 hours. When dry fasting your body goes into a state of autophagy, which means that it is consuming dead or weak cells as a source of energy. It’s an incredible healing process that our body is capable of achieving.
To support this, it’s crucial to rest the body and the mind. So it’s important to do less. Don’t plan on going for a long hike, or meal prepping for the week, or gardening under the hot sun while doing your dry fast. I’ve made the mistake of going grocery shopping while dry fasting. Don’t make the same one. Let life be a little easier, a little slower. Cue up an audiobook you’ve been waiting to listen to, allow yourself to take a nap (or naps), watch a good movie or three, give yourself permission to explore a creative endeavor like drawing or painting.
Once in the process, you’ll quickly realize how much time and energy you spend on eating. There’s all the time you spend thinking about eating, shopping for food, cooking, driving to a restaurant, sitting there waiting for your food, finally eating, digesting, planning out your next meals, and on and on. All of a sudden you have an extra 3, 4, 5 hours added to your day! It’s wild.
This is where the emotional benefits start to emerge. I know when I’m stressed or anxious or slightly bored I know that the fridge or pantry will satiate my emotional turmoil. Not while dry fasting. Crap. So you’re saying I have to sit with and acknowledge the discomfort I’m feeling? Yup. I can’t binge on food to feel better? Nope. You get to allow yourself to simply be. I know, it’s not easy at first!
After my first long dry fast (42 hours) I really started to reflect on my relationship with emotional eating. I still reach for snacks to this day but now there’s a bit more spaciousness in that behavior. I can have a conversation with my inner snacker before it takes over my life. It’s liberating.
How Long To Dry Fast?
Great question. How long is totally up to you. I recommend 20-24 hours for your first time and then gradually increase based on your experience. I like to record my fasts on an app called Zero. They make it super easy and fun to track.
In my experience, it’s important to commit to a certain length before you start. By doing this you can mentally prepare for the journey. Our mind and body tend to expand into the container that we set, so if you set an ambitious goal before starting then you’re more likely to see the finish line.
More important, however, is that you listen to your body along the way! I’ll say that again: listen to your body along the way. If you feel far too fatigued and even a nap did not help then it could be time to stop. The whole process is subjective and unique to your body. Listen to it. You can ignore your mind, it will try to get you to cheat or cut corners at every step of the process. But the body does not lie and it will tell you exactly what it needs if you commit to listening to it.
If you’re new to being in a fasted state it’s possible that you’ll encounter head or body aches. Rather than reaching for Tylenol, Ibuprofen, or other meds, see if you can nap or lay down. Really try to be with the sensations of the detox that is happening. Embrace instead of resist the discomfort. If it’s not tolerable it’s ok to drink water, administer an enema if that’s available to you, or consult a physician.
In addition to aches and pains, other symptoms that could surface include rashes, slight fever, coughing, dry mouth, or an excess of phlegm. You are purging old cells and all of these are natural symptoms while detoxifying the body. The more you can embrace what shows up and nurture yourself, the better off you’ll be.
Lastly, be mindful of your emotional state throughout your fasting journey. You might find yourself more irritable and frustrated. Emotions like anger and sadness are common companions when we’re putting our bodies to the test. See if you can be with them and even find healthy ways to express yourself. Be careful not to engage in important or potentially triggering conversations. Honor that you’re in a vulnerable state! If someone requests something of you and you don’t feel energetically up for it, a healthy boundary could sound like, “I really want to be there to support you, but today I am fasting and I’d feel better if we can postpone this conversation until tomorrow. Is that alright with you?” Look at you, learning to communicate a boundary!
Giving The Body A Break
“You continuously go on eating every day. You never give any holiday to the body. The body goes on accumulating many dead cells. They become a load. Not only they are a load and burden, they are toxins, they are poisonous. They make the body impure. When the body is impure you cannot see the hidden body behind it. This body needs to be clean, transparent, pure.” Osho
Giving your body a holiday, like the one you take from work, is incredibly nourishing. Instead of a lack of energy, during a dry fast, it’s common to experience a surge or burst of energy. It takes a lot of energy to digest your food. During a fast, your body has access to more energy to expend!
When we give our bodies a break it also clears space in the mind. Lightness of body translates to lightness of mind. The mind-body connection is undeniable. We then have the capacity to more clearly see our own inner limits. Suddenly the voice in our head that says, “I’m hungry, it’s time to eat” can be witnessed with more curiosity and compassion. We have the opportunity to then respond to the body's needs versus reacting to an impulse for snacking or grazing.
As the body rests and digests it’s totally natural to be met with resistance along the way. We have become very programmed to believe we need thousands of calories each and every day. You might find yourself thinking, “I’m dying because my stomach is growling, therefore I must eat!” or “I haven’t had water in hours, surely I’m going to be dehydrated!” Neither is true, assuming the conditions in your environment are not requiring you to exert lots of energy or sweat profusely. If you're scrolling Instagram, however, the food photos you inevitably navigate towards will feel like torture. Put down the food porn.
Yes, you may experience some feelings of fatigue, increased body temperature, dizziness, or lightheadedness. Most all of these are a sign that you’re in a state of healing. When we can observe our limits and listen to the body we can then give it what it needs: rest. Again, this is why it’s crucial to give yourself a lighter schedule so that you can do less while in a fasted state.
Fasting For Life
Fasting is now a practice that exists towards the top of my toolbox. Through experience, I know how to use it effectively and what it gives me. I have a more intuitive relationship with food. I chew more mindfully and feel how it eases the digestion process.
Though it’s called “fasting” it actually slows life down dramatically. There’s more time in my day, I’m more present with my moment-to-moment experiences, and I’m more connected to my body. When I’m more connected to my body I get deeper insights into what it needs and what it’s truly capable of.
For now, I’m committed to dry fasting once a week for at least 24 hours. If I finish consuming food and water on Sunday night between 6:00 and 8:00pm, I can dry fast until Monday night around the same time. And if my energy levels are still good after 24 hours then by sleeping I can easily attain 36 hours of accumulated dry fasting time and reap even more of the healing benefits.
When I re-introduce food and water it’s imperative to go slowly. I like to have a plan for my first meal back so that I’m not tempted to overdo it. Extra hydrating fruits like watermelon and astringent citrus fruits blended together make for a wonderful smoothie-like concoction. You won’t need to eat as much as you’re used to. Go slow. Eat mindfully. Adding foods that are rich in probiotics like sauerkraut or kombucha are also helpful for flushing your stomach with healthy bacteria. Avoid processed food, foods high in fat and oil, and be mindful of your gluten and dairy intake. Your system will be sensitive.
When you’ve felt how good being healthy and clean feels then you’re more likely to choose simple and plain foods for 24-48 hours following the fast. And, since your senses are heightened you’re able to really savor the flavors. Treat yourself to flavors that you genuinely enjoy!
Crossing The Finish Line & Beyond
Congratulations, you did it! Reaching the end of a dry fast feels like a monumental accomplishment. I’ve climbed mountain peaks and finished grueling triathlon races, and can confidently say that getting to the finish line of a lengthy dry fast is an honorable feat. I got to test my own inner limits and edges. I know, through experience, that I can survive for three days without food or water. So if I happen to be in a situation where I don’t have access to sustenance I don’t have to expend extra energy by panicking about food and water shortage. This is a bit extreme, as the conditions of dry fasting vs. needing to survive are very different, but you get what I’m saying.
I’ll say it again, but do go slow as you re-introduce water and food into your diet. Do your best to eat clean and light for your first meals. Enjoy a cup of warm broth or fresh fruit. Resist the urge to devour a bag of salty chips or to eat a bunch of sweets. And trust me, the urge will be there!
Most important is to stay present throughout the process. Getting curious about how our minds and body nourish and heal themselves is a noble practice. The body temple is an incredible work of art and when you dry fast you give the masterpiece a much-needed touchup!